2 North Jersey families sue over kids tattoos
Friday, January 5, 2007
By KIBRET MARKOS
TARIQ ZEHAWI / THE RECORD
A tattoo artist applying a temporary henna drawing. Two Bergen County children have indelible dolphin-shaped scars from henna tattoos.
On a family vacation last summer, 8-year-old Michaela Reilly of Old Tappan went with her father to get a temporary tattoo at a body-art shop on Long Beach Island.
The line of three dolphins on her lower back, drawn with black henna, faded within a few days, like it was supposed to. A few weeks later, however, her back was covered with blisters.
"It was red and nasty," said Maerose Ludlum, Michaela's mother.
After several treatments, the girl was left with what doctors deemed a permanent scar -- in the shape of three dolphins.
"Thank God she didn't get a tattoo on her neck, or someplace else where the scar would have been visible all the time," Ludlum said.
An attorney for the Reillys and another North Jersey family filed a lawsuit Thursday against a national black henna distributor they say is responsible for their children's permanent scars.
Both families say lawsuits are the only means, in a business largely unregulated by state or federal laws, to protect youngsters and other customers who get the popular drawings every year at tattoo shops, boardwalks, carnivals and other venues throughout New Jersey.
"We are trying to hold this company accountable for its adulterated products," said Rosemarie Arnold, a Fort Lee attorney representing the two families. "This lawsuit hopefully will serve as a warning to the general public against the dangers of black henna."
With temporary tattoos, a hard-staining paint is applied to the skin. Unlike a real tattoo, they don't involve skin-piercing and fade within a few weeks.
Cheaper and less painful than real tattoos, temporary tattoos are popular among children -- who are not allowed by law to be tattooed -- and among many adults who aren't ready to commit to a permanent tattoo, said Dean Carnecchia, manager of Lola's Tattoos on East Main Street in Bogota.
Henna has been used for hundreds of years for body decoration in India, Pakistan, the Middle East, the South Pacific Islands and other parts of the world, Carnecchia said. The reddish-brown coloring, made naturally from a plant, is purely organic and often causes no problems to the skin, he said.
In the United States, where black tattoos are much more popular than brown or reddish brown ones, distributors and some tattoo artists add black coloring chemicals to the henna, Carnecchia said. The added chemical also allows the tattoo to dry faster and last longer, he said.
But some of these ingredients -- such as the "coal tar" coloring legal for use only in hair dye -- have been known to cause allergic reactions leading to permanent scarring.
"Some tattooists use hair dye to turn the henna black, and that can cause skin problems," Carnecchia said.
David Bikoff, a Hackensack plastic surgeon, said he is treating an increasing number of patients injured by temporary tattoos over the past five years.
Although they "are getting more and more popular," Bikoff said, "I would caution that there is a risk of permanent scarring.
"That has to be considered when anybody allows their child to use one of these," he said.
Michelle Lolk and her two young children know such trouble firsthand.
Lolk, of River Edge, took her 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son to a tattoo shop this past summer for their first-ever temporary tattoos. Young Ethan got a cross on his arm. His sister, Olivia, got a dolphin on her belly.
A day later, Olivia complained of severe pain.
"It looked like she was branded with a poker," Lolk said.
A photo taken several weeks after the tattoo wore off shows a bright red welt on the girl's belly in the shape of a dolphin.
A few days later, Ethan had a similar reaction, Lolk said. Dermatologists and plastic surgeons have said the damage is permanent, she said.
"I don't understand how they could do this and get away with it," the upset mother said.
The New Jersey Department of Health regulates tattoo artists, enforcing the guidelines on running an establishment as well as the health and safety requirements for performing body art.
"Body art" includes tattooing, piercing and permanent cosmetics. It doesn't include temporary tattoos: Anyone can draw a temporary one on themselves or others without a need for licensing or certification.
"There is no legislation requiring us to regulate temporary tattooing," department spokesman Nathan Rudy said. "At this time, it is not seen as a public health issue."
The federal government doesn't regulate temporary tattooing, either. The Food and Drug Administration has received numerous reports of allergic reaction to temporary tattoos but doesn't keep statistics on the number of injuries, said FDA spokeswoman Heidi Rebello.
The agency has issued a warning that it is illegal to distribute adulterated products, although the meaning of "adulterated" has proved elusive, at least in some cases.
One controversial product is "Super Black Henna Powder," distributed by Ronald Wells of Coral Springs, Fla. Wells' company, Black Henna Ink Inc., is the main defendant in the lawsuit filed by the Lolks and the Reillys.
"This product is in serious violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," reads an August 2006 letter by the FDA, addressed to Wells. The letter warns Wells to correct the violation or face sanctions, including seizure of the product.
Wells disputes the FDA's findings. Maintaining that his product isn't adulterated, he still offers black henna for sale on his company's Web site.
"That letter is 97 percent incorrect, and I am challenging them," he said, refusing further comment.
FDA officials also declined to comment, saying the inquiry is continuing.
Arnold predicts the issue won't be as controversial when her clients' case gets to a jury.
"We have three children with permanent scars to their bodies," she said. "We know the product is adulterated."
Because their lawsuit involves product liability, the plaintiffs are subject to a lower standard of proof, requiring them to show only that they suffered injuries from a defective product -- regardless of whether the distributor can be shown to be negligent or reckless.
"I don't know what's in the product," said Arnold, who filed the lawsuit in Superior Court in Hackensack. "But I know that all my clients went to get temporary tattoos and [instead] got permanent scars."